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Diplomatic row brews in hunt for assassins

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Cops leave airport empty-handed

Saturady Star – March 06, 2010 Edition 1

By Bianca Capazorio

Claims that OR Tambo International Airport was used as an escape route for Mossad assassins could reignite old tensions between the South African security establishment and Israeli airline El Al, which has close links to the Israeli government.

The airline had already missed a February 28 deadline to clean up its act at South African airports when it became known that at least two of the alleged killers of a Palestinian arms smuggler in Dubai last month had left the Arab emirate on a flight for Joburg. Once there, they caught an El Al aircraft for Tel Aviv.

All 26 suspects left Dubai within 12 hours of the killing of Mahmoud Mabhouh on January 20. Mabhouh, believed to be running guns into Gaza for Hamas, was found dead in the five-star Al Bustan Rotana Hotel. It is believed that he was stunned before being suffocated.

The Saturday Star has learnt that the suspects were on a flight from Dubai between midnight and 1am on the day after the attack. They would have landed in Joburg early on January 21. Dubai police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim is on record as saying Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, was behind the murder. Dubai police said the hotel's CCTV footage showed the murder had been carried out by operatives in disguises including tennis rackets and sports outfits, to blend in with tourists. Their dramatic escape has played out at a time when El Al's security operation at OR Tambo was under sustained criticism for flouting diplomatic protocols. Although El Al is ostensibly a commercial operation, agreements with the apartheid government allowed it extraordinary leeway in South Africa. Its security personnel were even allowed to carry arms licensed to the Israeli Embassy inside the airport. The Saturday Star's own investigations indicate that these personnel were until recently on diplomatic passports. The recent withdrawal of these passports has been a source of tension between the government and El Al. In addition, an Israeli national, Yossi Tabul, 49, a former head of El Al's security in South Africa, serves as security adviser to the Airports Company South Africa (Acsa). In an insert on M-Net's Carte Blanche on August 30 last year, a former El Al security operative claimed the airline's security operations were controlled by the Israeli secret service. In the wake of the exposé, two El Al security operatives were expelled from South Africa, and the government withdrew diplomatic immunity to the airline's operatives. While Dubai police have not responded to questions about the Joburg flights, they have been quoted as saying the group had split up into eight groups, departing Dubai for various international destinations, including Joburg. The Saturday Star has reliably learnt that Dubai officials have asked OR Tambo for CCTV footage of the group's arrival – but South African police who went to collect the films left empty-handed. A former Acsa employee, who did not want to be named, said OR Tambo had about 2 000 surveillance cameras; however, this footage was kept for only 30 days, and if the request had been made only last week, the film would have been wiped. Acsa spokesman Solomon Makgale yesterday denied that such a request had been made. Protocol would suggest that such a request would have been made through Interpol, but the spokeswoman for Interpol in South Africa, Senior Superintendent Tummi Golding, said they had not received a request in writing. National Intelligence Agency spokesman Brian Dube said they were aware of the matter, but it had been decided not to discuss details with the media.